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Monday, October 3, 2022

“Our Fort” by Marie Dorléans

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DRAWING OUTDOORS, by Jairo Buitrago; illustrated by Rafael Yockteng; translated by Elisa Amado
OUR FORT, by Marie Dorléans; translated by Alyson Waters

One summer, when I was a single mother raising my second and fourth graders in Brooklyn and the weeks ahead without child care loomed large, my friend Catherine and I rented a farmhouse in upstate New York for a month. She brought her 9-year-old twins, and we let the kids explore the woods while we worked. We gave them a loud whistle and generous boundaries — the distant stone wall, the serpentine stream, the neighboring field — and sent them off to run wild.

Alone in the forest, as they let their imaginations also run wild, what they actually did was establish order. They called their land Mimoss. They built houses, ran businesses, named and mapped landmarks. They held contentious town meetings on the Flat Rock and issued dire warnings about the perils of the Evil Snakey Forest, which loomed threateningly on all sides. This threat, giddily amplified, was crucial to the thrill of the experience, just as it is in three new picture books in which children let their imaginations loose in the great outdoors.

In “Children of the Forest,” by Matt Myers, it is wild beasts, a dragon and an intruder that threaten a boy and his little sister, who declare themselves children of the forest, raised by wolves. The boy, steeped in wilderness stories, valiantly protects his sister, even as they “teeter on the edge of starvation.” He guides her in the art of survival as they forage for food, fight off dangerous animals and set up camp for the night. There is an enjoyable tension between text and images, where what we are told is at odds with what we see. Older children will revel in being in on the joke: The beasts are the household cat and dog, the dragon is a leafy tree with twiggy teeth and the intruder is the kids’ mom.

But the mother’s visit breaks the spell for the girl, who, with a cry of “Mama!,” defects to the comfort and safety of home. Left alone in the deepening dusk, the boy succumbs to his vivid imagination and races back to the house, where we see the children tucked into their bunk beds. Myers’s soft, nostalgic pencil-and-watercolor drawings in muted greens and mauves include details meant for grown-ups (the dozing dad is reading Thoreau), but there is plenty for kids to discover, too, as they plot their own backyard adventures.

“Drawing Outdoors,” by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, is a slightly perplexing tale that begins at a school between two mountains in “the middle of nowhere” as diverse students of various ages arrive on foot from all directions and a dog pees on a bush. We learn that the school “has almost nothing. A blackboard, some chairs.” But it does have a playful teacher who leads the kids outside to explore the landscape, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the dinosaurs they have been studying. The children draw what they see. A Brontosaurus follows the curve of a hill, a Stegosaurus lurks behind boulders.

It is a fanciful intermingling of art, science and nature, except for the mildly confusing detail of a student with a tablet, which he holds up to photograph the scene. What are we to make of this? The camera doesn’t lie: We clearly see the dinosaurs on his screen. And what to make of the fact that despite the repeated mention of the school’s lack of resources, the children are equipped with easels, canvases, binoculars and that anomalous tablet? Perhaps it is a point about imagination transcending technology, creativity transcending material reality, or perhaps it is a nod from the illustrator to the digital medium in which the drawings for this book were made — drawings of inviting landscapes and curious children rendered in a striking palette, with just the right amount of detail.

There is much to like in this story (also available in Spanish) of an out-of-the-ordinary school day, especially when the wind picks up, the kids crouch down and a Tyrannosaurus rex comes crashing through the trees. The brave younger children stay and draw; two scared older kids run back to school, which gives their budding romance an opportunity to blossom.

While “Children of the Forest” plays with words that tell us one thing and pictures that tell us another, and “Drawing Outdoors” uses straightforward words to describe extraordinary sights, “Our Fort,” by Marie Dorléans (a winner of the 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Award for “The Night Walk”), could be read without words altogether. The exquisite illustrations, reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts in their composition and line, tell the story of three friends who revisit a fort they have built in the woods on the far side of a meadow.

In the opening spread we see the children tie their laces and buckle their sandals, and through the open door we see the dirt road they are going to take. This is some spectacular bookmaking. We turn the page to find them a little farther along that road, leaving behind a wistful younger sister sitting on the fence. The only suggestion of a grown-up is the shadow of a neighbor hanging a sheet on a clothesline, and we know we are in for an adventure.

Everything about the drawings propels us forward into the book: the pencil lines of the rippling grass as the kids take a shortcut through a field; the meandering paths they leave in their wake; the clouds billowing above these now small-looking (yet distinct) children as they make their way up a hill. The drama arrives with a gale. Strong winds lift the children off their feet, and you get the sense that they just might be enjoying their fear. When the storm recedes and blue skies return we can almost smell the damp field, and we can’t help sharing the kids’ relief as they discover their fort still standing.

It’s a simple story. Yet I can imagine “Our Fort” having a profound impact on a child — a child who might someday go into the woods with friends and spend weeks of a happy summer building a fort and establishing order, all the while thrilling to the prospect of sudden storms, wild winds and evil snakey forests.

Sophie Blackall is a two-time Caldecott Medal winner. Her next picture book, “Farmhouse,” will be published in September.

CHILDREN OF THE FOREST, by Matt Myers | 40 pp. | Neal Porter/Holiday House | $18.99 | Ages 2 to 5
DRAWING OUTDOORS, by Jairo Buitrago; illustrated by Rafael Yockteng; translated by Elisa Amado | 36 pp. | Aldana Libros/Greystone Kids | $18.95 | Ages 5 to 9
OUR FORT, by Marie Dorléans; translated by Alyson Waters | 48 pp. | The New York Review Children’s Collection | $19.95 | Ages 4 to 8

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